Obituary: Edward Dmytryk

Dmytryk's finest film was Farewell, My Lovely - some consider Dick Powell's interpretation of Philip Marlowe to be the screen's definitive portrayal

Tom Vallance
Friday 02 July 1999 23:02

THE LIFE and career of Edward Dmytryk was marked by ambivalence. The director of Hitler's Children, one of the most successful B movies of all time, and some excellent films noir of the Forties, including Farewell My Lovely, Cornered and Crossfire, he later made some of Hollywood's most lumbering vehicles. A committed left-winger who initially refused to collaborate with the House Un-American Activities Committee and went to gaol for his beliefs, he later recanted and named names, incriminating several of his former colleagues.

Dmytryk was born in 1908 in Grand Forks, Canada, to Ukrainian immigrants. When he was six years old his mother died and his father moved to San Francisco, where the boy was made to contribute to the family budget by selling papers and caddying at the local country club. "I was 14," he later wrote, "when I realised that the beatings I was getting at home were counter-productive."

He ran away from home, and juvenile authorities placed him with a family in Hollywood. At the age of 15, he obtained a job as messenger boy at Paramount and worked in various departments at the studio until in 1930, the director Cyril Gardner hired him as editor on Only Saps Work.

For most of the next decade he worked as an editor, his films including The Royal Family of Broadway (1930), If I Had a Million (1932), Duck Soup (1933) and Ruggles of Red Gap (1935). He directed his first film, The Hawk, a low-budget western, in 1935, but his career as a director did not really start until 1939 when Paramount gave him a contract to direct a series of B movies.

Television Spy (1939) was not an auspicious start. Daily Variety wrote,

Equipped with story material that should have built it into a strong supporting feature, Television Spy slumps into filler division because of the inability of director Edward Dmytryk to draw convincing characterisations from his players.

By 1940, when he moved to Columbia Studios and made the Boris Karloff chiller The Devil Commands, two mystery stories, Secrets of the Lone Wolf and Confessions of Boston Blackie, and the Ruby Keeler musical Sweetheart of the Campus he had gained a reputation as one of Hollywood's most efficient low-budget directors, but it was with a move to RKO the following year that he began to attract attention.

After making an anti-Nazi thriller, Seven Miles from Alcatraz (1942), he was given a story about the indoctrination of children in Nazi Germany adapted from a book called Education for Death. Retitled Hitler's Children (1943), and starring Tim Holt and Bonita Granville, it was a box-office sensation - costing $100,000, it made nearly $4m, though critics were not impressed.

"Old stuff to those who read the papers and unreflective of the deeper drama involved," wrote Bosley Crowther in The New York Times, while Howard Barnes in the Herald-Tribune stated, "Both in the treatment and the direction, the picture is more sensational than dramatically effective." Dmytryk himself said,

The subject matter was shocking to wartime audiences: sterilisation, illegitimate babies to forge a master race. I can't say Bonita Granville and Tim Holt were very German, but that was their appeal. We were really showing how American kids would behave under the same circumstances.

Dmytryk next made another sensational propaganda piece, Behind the Rising Sun (1943), described as "hitting a new high in atrocities" in its depiction of the Japanese bayonetting children (when not giving them opium), raping women, inserting needles under their fingernails and carrying out various forms of torture. It was a massive box- office hit and the studio rewarded the director by giving him another propaganda piece, but this time an A movie with their biggest star, Ginger Rogers. Written by Dalton Trumbo, Tender Comrade (1943) was the story of four war wives who decide to pool resources while their husbands are away, and its communistic principles (Rogers refused to say the line, "Share and share alike") would be cited later when Trumbo and Dmytryk were being tried for their politics.

Dmytryk's next film was his finest, a version of Raymond Chandler's Farewell, My Lovely which is second only to Howard Hawks's The Big Sleep as a film adaptation of a Chandler book - some consider Dick Powell's interpretation of the detective hero Philip Marlowe to be the screen's definitive portrayal. Dmytryk saw Marlowe as "a do-gooder with the patina of toughness only skin-deep" and that is the way Powell played him.

From the striking shot when Marlowe's client, the hulking Moose Malloy (played by the wrestler Mike Mazurki) is reflected in Marlowe's office window, the film is a compulsively gripping saga of paranoia, violence and sexual duplicity, with Powell supported by a fine cast headed by Claire Trevor, who later stated,

Although our director did a very good job, I wasn't keen on him personally. He was a young, attractive and talented man, but a Commie, as we called them. Later, when he really began to make money, he bought apartment buildings and other real estate and became a big capitalist.

Because Dick Powell had become famous for his musicals in the Thirties, early preview audiences assumed that the title Farewell, My Lovely signified a musical, so for the American release in 1945 the film was called Murder, My Sweet. Dmytryk's next thriller, Cornered (1945), also starred Powell as a former war pilot tracking down Nazis in Buenos Aires. Till the End of Time (1946) was a touching study of returning war veterans which did well, and had particular importance for Dmytryk because in the cast was Jean Porter, a peppy and pretty teenage actress. The couple fell in love and in 1948 Jean Porter became Dmytryk's second wife. The marriage was to endure for the rest of their lives, and Dmytryk's autobiography It's a Hell of a Life, But Not a Bad Living (1978) had the dedication, "For Jean -My Only Love".

Dmytryk's Crossfire (1947) was one of Hollywood's first attempts to deal with racial discrimation. The film's use of exaggerated shadows and harsh lighting illustrated the effect of German expressionism on film noir, though Dmytryk also pointed out that the cost of the film's three stars, Robert Young, Robert Mitchum and Robert Ryan (truly chilling as the bigoted killer), necessitated a short shooting schedule, and simple high-contrast lighting took less time to set up. "It was a lot faster to light the people and then throw a couple of big shadows on the wall."

Shortly after the film was finished, Dmytryk and his producer Adrian Scott were among those summoned to appear before the House Un-American Activities Committee. When they refused to answer questions about their political affiliations they became part of the famed "Hollywood Ten" to be imprisoned.

After serving a year in gaol, Dmytryk went into self-imposed exile in Britain, where he made So Well Remembered (1948), Obsession (1949) and Give Us This Day (1949) before returning to the US and agreeing to testify in the second round of committee hearings. His naming of several colleagues was never forgiven by some of them, including the director Jules Dassin, who denied the charge but vehemently refused to testify. "I feel completely betrayed by Dmytryk's accusation," he stated, "but it would be my word against his." There was no evidence against Dassin except Dmytryk's, but the HUAC persecuted him anyway and Dassin was forced into exile at the age of 38.

Dmytryk returned to Hollywood film-making with a low-budget adventure yarn, Mutiny (1952), many of his former colleagues refusing to hire him, but the producer Stanley Kramer came to his rescue and hired him to direct The Sniper (1952), a taut and well-played thriller.

Dmytryk returned to mainstream film-making in 1954 directing Humphrey Bogart in The Caine Mutiny, Spencer Tracy in Broken Lance and Deborah Kerr in a film version of Graham Greene's novel The End of the Affair - all respectable films, but lacking the spark of his earlier successes. Soldier of Fortune (1955), The Left Hand of God (1955, again with Bogart) and The Mountain (1956) were fairly dreary, and MGM's lavish production Raintree County (1957), touted as a new Gone with the Wind, was disastrously dull, notable only for the fine performance of Elizabeth Taylor.

One of the director's better films was The Young Lions (1958), a sometimes effective if sprawling saga of the Second World War with Marlon Brando as a morally confused Nazi. The Carpetbaggers (1964) was a commercially successful adaptation of the Harold Robbins best-seller, and the same author provided the story for Where Love Has Gone (1964).

But the best of the later Dmytryk films was a modest thriller, Mirage (1965), which, from its hypnotic opening sequence in which an amnesiac, Gregory Peck, meets the heroine Diane Baker in the stairwell of a huge office building during a black-out, is totally gripping.

In his late 1970s, Dmytryk taught film at the University of Texas, and in 1981 was appointed a film-making professor at the University of Southern California. "Garson Kanin told me you should take chances, change careers," wrote Dmytryk, "so I decided to take up a new career, teaching - and I'm hooked."

Edward Dmytryk, film director: born Grand Forks, British Columbia 4 September 1908; twice married (one son, two daughters); died Los Angeles 1 July 1999.

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